Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Wool, Women and WWII

by Davina Blake

English women recruited to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the ATS) in World War II found themselves the proud possessors of a mountain of kit mostly made from wool: two itchy khaki uniforms, four pairs of lisle stockings, three pairs of khaki lock-knit knickers (ouch!), two pairs of striped men's pyjamas, eight starched collars, including the studs to attach them, and a greatcoat meant for a man.


Iris Bryce, a new recruit, said, "The shoes were so heavy I clonked along feeling like Frankenstein."

During the height of the War, in 1943, an astonishing 10,325,000 battle dress jackets and trousers were produced by Britain's wool and textile industry. (Figures from British War Production 1939 - 45).

The uniforms extended right through to the underwear. Iris found the boned corsets so unforgiving and unflattering that she sent them home to her Gran, but was told that this was illegal as all the kit belonged to the King's Uniform, and she was not allowed to give it away.

For some poorer women, the uniform was a relief. Clothes rationing for civilians had been introduced in 1941, and in 1942 the government set maximum prices. The Board of Trade permitted only a few styles, made only from specified cloths, the ones that were not being used for battledress. Stockings were only available made in lisle or wool, as silk was needed for parachutes. Women painted their legs with potassium permanganate to give a somewhat streaky tan. A black eyebrow pencil was used to give the impression of a seam. By saving on stockings, the clothing coupons were reserved for more essential purchases, such as shoes and coats.

Some women from slum conditions found the single bed, provided by the army barracks, luxurious after sharing with siblings or other family members, and the uniform helped to instil a sense of equality amongst women from many different backgrounds.


Austerity continued at home. "Mother was very good at sewing," says Joan Ball. "If sheets became thin in the middle she cut them in half and stitched the sides together to make them last a bit longer." Joan had several cousins, and her mother made all their dresses, charging 2/6d (15p) for them. 

When Joan joined the ATS, she was sent to Pontefract training base for six weeks. She says: "Every morning we had kit parade where everything had to be laid out on our beds, bedding folded so that every blanket was the same, jacket buttons and shoes polished. We then had to stand to attention at the foot of the bed, not daring to move. After inspection we assembled on the parade ground and marched up and down until the Sergeant Major was satisfied with our performance."

Joan was billeted in the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, Chilworth, where the dining room catered for a thousand girls. Joan says, "The food was generally plain and rather stodgy. We had scrambled egg, which arrived on huge trays and was made from dried egg, for breakfast."


Talking of Queen Elizabeth Barracks, The Queen also served with the ATS - with the Number 1 'Beaufront' Company, Here she can be seen can be seen with an Austin K2 ambulance. I wonder if she found the army issue corset unmanageable too!


Knitting for Britain

Homes were mostly unheated in the winter as coal was needed for essential factories and industries. Most women were expected to knit - for themselves, for their families and for their fighting husbands. Bales of wool were supplied in regulation colours and the WRVS would wind the wool into skeins and issue it to women. Buses and trams were full of women knitting - not to knit was seen as unpatriotic. The Red Cross gave out patterns for sweaters, balaclavas, socks, mufflers, fingerless mitts (which allowed soldiers to keep their hands warm while shooting), and toe covers (for injured soldiers with legs in casts).


Sources:
Corsets and Camouflage - Kate Adie
The Daily Mail
Vintage and One of a Kind Magazine

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Find out more about my WWII novel Past Encounters on my website www.davinablake.com
Davina Blake also writes as Deborah Swift.

12 comments:

  1. Clothing was hard to come by in the US, and at the end of the war, surplus WAC and WAVE uniforms were marketed to civilians, but with buttons and patches removed. My father bought 2 for my mother, who had very little to wear. But she hated them. After years of food and gas rationing, that that horrible Oleo, Mom was ready for some frills, not sombre,scrathy woolen suits.

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    1. I feel for your Mom, I would have been exactly the same!

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  2. Gee, I would have been in terrible straits. I am allergic to wool and would have been covered in red itchy welts if I had to wear that uniform and the underwear and expecially the stockings. I had to wear long woollen stockings as a child (I was born in 1945) and suffered greatly til we found out what the problem was! Even thinking about it now gives me goosebumps!!

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    1. Yes, I guess there were probably many others with a similar allergy. Apparently the uniforms chafed even with a shirt underneath as they were still quite stiff - designed for hard wear and long life.

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  3. I do love this era - researched this time for my first book and been fascinated ever since. Thanks for this brilliant post

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    1. Hi Judith, have just got Pattern of Shadows on kindle! Looking forward to it.

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  4. I would have been considered unpatriotic as I have never got the hang of knitting anything but a scarf! Great post!

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    1. I bet the WVS would have made you knit endless scarves. It was the ideal thing to do whilst listening to the radio, I believe.

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  5. I recently was involved in knitting for an exhibition showing the role of the woman knitter in conflict. We used Red Cross patterns and hard wearing pure wool. I did some hospital stocking without a heel which were very warm to wear!

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    1. Oh, that sounds fascinating Bev. It is only in recent years that women have stopped knitting so much. I still remember the clack of my Gran's needles with fondness and nostalgia.

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    2. There is actually quite a lot of knitting going on. I subscribe to a knitting web thing where you occasionally get a free pattern, in hopes of finding something I can do. And charities are always asking for things that anyone who knows how to knit can do, such as squares for blankets. A couple of years ago, Save The Children was asking for that. You knitted a certain number of squares in pure wool and they had volunteers to stitch them together as blankets. My library technician, (who was a much better knitter than me) and I knitted away and handed the squares over to the nearest STC shop. She helped me out when I stuffed up. ;-)

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    3. Hi Sue, do you think there's a bit of a revival going on? I like the idea of the squares - about the only thing I could knit! Our local town has a lovely new Wool shop just opened up. I think there's a lot of interest in crafts too, as an antidote to our 'virtual' lives!

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